Religious Scholars Argue Validity of Digital Meditation

Gregory Grieve, who heads the religious studies department at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, holds that the authenticity of digital Buddhist meditation is not the determining factor as to whether it is a valid practice of the religion.

In a recent article published on The Conversation website, he wrote “authenticity is not determined by its strict adherence to older forms. Rather, an authentic practice furthers a happiness founded on deeper meanings, whereas an inauthentic practice may only provide fleeting pleasure or temporary relief.”

A scholar of digital religion and Buddhism, Grieve takes up arguments by scholars who are critical of digital Buddhism:

Some believe “online Buddhism differs from earlier forms – if not in message then at least in the way it is transmitted.”

Others “dismiss digital Buddhism as mere popular consumerism that takes historically rich and complex traditions and selectively repackages them for monetary gain.”

Most scholars who find fault with the practice see it as a form of “Western popular culture’s appropriation of Asian traditions,” citing University of the West professor of religious studies Jane Iwamura and her book “Virtual Orientalism,” in which she says the practice obscures the voices of actual Buddhists of Asian descent.

But Grieve disagrees.

“In the end, these all may be legitimate concerns,” he writes. “Nevertheless, these scholars do not address many Western Buddhists’ deep desire for an intense spiritual experience. In my research, many Western Buddhists have often described their religious practice as a ‘search for authenticity.’”

Current popular culture centers on hedonic happiness, which values an outgoing, social, joyous view of life. As a result, much of the Buddhist-inspired media currently found on meditation apps peddle moments of personal bliss, calm and relaxation.”

Grieve refers to the concept of “eudaimonia,” which means “the condition of “good spirit,” which is commonly translated as ‘human flourishing.’” And he points out that according to Aristotle, “eudaimonia is the highest end, and all subordinate goals – health, wealth and other such resources – are sought because they promote living well. Aristotle insists that there are virtuous pleasures besides those of the senses and that the best pleasures are experienced by virtuous people who find happiness in deeper meanings.”

And even in Buddhist texts such as the Samaññaphala Sutta, “one can find eudaimonic descriptions of Buddhist practice.”

Moreover, Grieve indicates, “Buddhism has been modified and translated into new cultures wherever it has spread. Also, no doubt, online Western Buddhism shows that it has been translated to fit into our consumer society.”

In the final analysis, however, Grieve states, “If digital Buddhist practice approaches the good life as eudaimonic – as leading to human flourishing based on the pursuit of a deeper meaning – it can be judged to be authentic. An inauthentic practice is one that just furthers hedonism by merely peddling bliss and relaxation.”